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A Gen Z Brand Looks Beyond Y2K

Following a well-received show last season, the designer Sintra Martins is ready for Saint Sintra’s official debut.
There are high expectations for Saint Sintra's official debut.
There are high expectations for Saint Sintra's official debut. (Neva Wireko)
BoF PROFESSIONAL

Last September, despite showing off the official New York Fashion Week calendar, Sintra Martins had to start turning people away at the door minutes before her show started.

“It was a really big surprise,” said Martins of the show. “It’s been a very fun snowball.”

As the relevance of New York Fashion Week has waned, with further difficulties brought on by Covid restrictions and supply chain issues, some brands have opted to sit fashion week out, Martins is at the forefront of a small wave of independent designers to step into the fold.

She’s managed to translate the momentum of that September show into wholesale accounts with retailers like Dover Street Market and Ssense, production contracts and celebrity style placements including Olivia Rodrigo, Kim Petras, Sydney Sweeney and Willow Smith.

In the past, this kind of attention would warrant a large debut show and significant financial backing. The current fashion landscape, however, has forced designers to be more prudent in attempting to translate moments of virality into business plans and equity deals.

Now showing on-schedule and on-season, Martins, a Parsons and Thom Browne alum, is looking to solidify a business model and scale that would put the brand on path to becoming a sustainable long-term business. It’s a hard task for any independent label, and one that will include more core, consistent pieces, moving away from custom orders, ramping up production to meet order minimums and finding the right kind of investor.

It’s a large step for a brand that only launched in January 2020, when Martins released a collection of six circus-themed looks. Then, she hoped the eye-catching designs would bring enough momentum to put the brand in motion.

“It was made to measure but it was really made for press,” said Martins.

Enough of the right people noticed, which brought in custom orders and then led to larger press placements and wider buzz. For her last show, she drew upon the celebrity zeitgeist of the early 2000s — sheer dresses and bedazzled accessories — that’s become inescapable on social media and the streets of downtown New York.

Martins, however, has managed to find more depth in the aesthetic, honing the look into something more subversive through refined silhouettes and materials that feel simultaneously mature and playful.

“Designers like her are really trying to redefine what it looks like to exist in New York fashion today,” said fashion journalist José Criales-Unzueta, who named Saint Sintra as one of his favourite up and coming brands. “Saint Sintra, you want them to win. You want them to succeed.”

After she landed the initial rush of wholesale accounts, which also included H Lorenzo in Los Angeles and New York’s Cafe Forgot, Martins took out short-term loans in order to meet orders, producing most of the collection in New York.

“Challenging is an understatement,” said Martins of finding the right factories with small order counts and a tight budget. Right now the brand is privately funded, including loans from family and friends, but Martins hopes to find an outside investor.

There were other takeaways from the past few months as well, marking both a large financial and aesthetic shift for Martins.

For one, she’s moving away from the elastane, sheer pieces that defined her last collection, looking to more environmentally friendly, day-to-day pieces for consumers.

“For special events, those garments are fun … where people maybe like more ephemeral clothing,” said Martins. “But I think going forward, I really want to create a good product that really can stand the test of time.”

And despite the buzz and celebrity interest, Martins decided to stop custom-made orders in order to focus on wholesale accounts.

“I realised very quickly that was not sustainable,” said Martins. “Not only is it not profitable … it costs a lot of money. We really just can’t take it on.”

Her upcoming collection will be more masculine, with an emphasis on suiting inspired by bike suits worn by women at the start of the 20th century. It’s a large shift from the style she debuted with, and a risk for the brand.

“It’s a big jump, it’s actually a little bit nerve-wracking,” Martins admitted. “I’m kind of concerned that it’s going to be so different from the last show that it will throw people.”

Ron Hartleben, a stylist for Saint Sintra’s shows, described the evolution in different terms: “It’s like a baby is born and they’re waking immediately.”

Still, Martins is betting on a longer-term business among consumers looking for fun, playful wardrobe staples instead of more avant-garde designs for editorial shoots and album covers.

“We’ve learned from last season about what people wear and what our sort of boundaries are with fabrics,” said Martins. “Our goal is to be a sustainable long term business and design house.”

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